Environmental architect and impresario William McDonough says that buildings should be more like trees. Trees turn sunlight into nourishment. They absorb carbon dioxide. They protect against extremes of temperature and absorb excess stormwater. And yet these great qualities all diminish markedly when a tree is cut into two-by-fours, the usual intermediate step before becoming architecture. The irony is even greater when you consider that for thousands of years, masons cut stone into leaf-like ornamentation in both classical and Gothic buildings, thereby imitating the wrong aspect of tree-ness. Buildings shouldn't look like trees; they should act like trees. Why did it take so long for us to figure that out?
In some respects, the new Welcome Center at the Phipps Conservatory is making up for lost time. The glass-dome-topped structure that provides entry, restaurant, gift shop and other spaces for Pittsburgh's illustrious Victorian greenhouse embraces the earth as well as a number of environmentally conscious materials and practices. The new central pod is really only the hat on a larger 11,000-square-foot structure that is not so much buried in the ground as ensconced in it. A ramp downward leads to the new below-grade plaza and entrance, while curving monumental stairs and upward-sloping turf lead to the original entry level. The indoor ascent through the dome to the old entry is now dramatic and spacious where it was once anti-climactic and claustrophobic.
There is a hint of I.M. Pei's project at the Louvre in Paris, where a notoriously modern glass pyramid in the middle of the Baroque palace's court marks access to a lobby that is largely underground, also making for dramatic re-emergences. Except that at Phipps, the new dome is not modern at all. The design, by IKM Architects, closely matches the pseudo-Asian pointed profile of the original structure of 1893, and then synthesizes it with the curving steps of a late Renaissance villa. Specifically, project architect Jim Taylor told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was inspired by the Villa Giulia in Rome.
It's admirable to take inspiration from a great work of architecture, especially when the Villa Giulia is a structure that uses luxurious open courtyards and theatrical shifts in level to weave together architecture and landscape with both ceremony and subtlety. Phipps Executive Director Richard Piacentini calls his facility "one of the prettiest glass houses in the country," and with good reason. So architectural lessons for the new addition should come from the most ambitious of sources.
The problem is that, even though the goals of environmental consciousness are ambitious and admirable, the architectural design incongruously misses the point. Here is a building that achieves fine results in acting like a tree without looking like a tree. Now what it needs to do is act like a Renaissance villa without looking like a Renaissance villa. Specifically, aiming to match the classical pilasters or the mannerist changing radii of the arched openings -- some of which are adapted from the Phipps's own original
architecture -- seems like the wrong approach. For one thing, it is the abstract lessons about moving people through an artful tableau of nature and construction that count the most, not the literal forms of it. For another thing, if ecologically conscientious architecture is an exciting new paradigm after centuries of industrialism, why not produce a design that looks like it is following this revised approach?
Imitating the exact profile of the old structure in the new dome isn't just
unadventurous, it's actually against the rules. Because Phipps is a National Historic Landmark, the architects need to follow guidelines that state that a new addition, without being disruptive, must reflect its own period of construction. The architects should have pursued this guideline with the same creative zeal that they applied to green roofs,
windmill-generated electricity and waterless urinals. The new addition is largely successful, and it improves the old facility in ways that sound a meaningful call for ecological improvement. I just feel, when I look at the literal use of historic forms, as if they are barking up the wrong tree.